27 February 2019.
A bright orange paddle boat drifts lazily across a still channel of mesmerising blue-green water. Furrowed cliffs rise high overhead dressed in a dense cluster of spindly, moss-clad trees, and plumes of water cascade elegantly into the pool below.
This was my very first introduction to Martvili Canyon. A mysterious and magical photograph, like a scene from Tolkien’s vivid imagination, was all the convincing I needed to hastily add this place I’d never heard of to my rapidly filling Georgian itinerary.
It wasn’t until weeks later when I was sitting in Kutaisi trawling through bus schedules, online maps and travel forums attempting to work out the logistics of actually getting there that I stumbled upon more than a few snippets of increasingly negative chatter on the interwebs suggesting that a visit to Martvili Canyon, and its neighbour Okatse Canyon, perhaps weren’t quite all they were cracked up to be.
‘Tourist trap’, ‘waste of money’, and ‘not worth it’ were all terms getting thrown around fairly liberally.
Coloured by expectation, past experience and most often your mood on any given day, long term travel inevitably means that there will be places that amaze you, and then, well, there are the ones that just fall a little flat. Not wanting to be swayed by a few other people’s bad experiences, however, I decided to go and see for myself and give you guys a better idea of whether a visit really is worth it or not.
Here’s what I really thought about my day trip to Okatse and Martvili Canyons and some things you might want to consider if you’re planning a trip of your own.
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Okatse Canyon is a deep forested rift carved by the aqua waters of the Okatse River where fragments of rocky escarpment peeking through the dense forest.
The newly built skywalk is the main attraction here and runs between the trees along the edge of the canyon culminating in a free hanging platform that juts out over the abyss. Definitely not something for those that are terrified of heights!
From the car park, it’s a 2.5km or 40-minute mostly downhill walk to reach the canyon. The skywalk itself is 1km and takes around 20 to 30 minutes to see at a slow pace, stopping to take pictures and look out over the canyon along the way.
At the car park, dozens of 4WD taxi drivers will be waiting to offer you a lift to and from the start of the skywalk for an extra fee if you don’t fancy walking.
By contrast, Martvilli Canyon is a cool oasis of slender, mossy trees that hug the low slung walls of the canyon. Funnelled through the rippled cliffs are the deep teal waters that have made this place the tourist attraction it is today.
A short paved path leads you through the area with a series of small, arched bridges that crisscross the river and lead to viewing areas for the cascades. An optional 10-minute boat trip will take you a short way further up the river to another waterfall.
The walking track is about 500m and can be completed in under 30 minutes. The rock platform around the boat departure point has quite lovely views but, annoyingly, this is out of bounds in order to make the boat trip a little more enticing.
Entrance Fees |
Okatse Canyon: 15 GEL (€5)
Martvili Canyon: 15 GEL (€5) + 13 GEL (€4.50) for optional 10-minute boat trip
Marshrutka: around 10 to 15 GEL (€5)
Canyon Tour: 30 GEL per person (€10)
Taxi: 100 GEL per car (€33.50)
Okatse 4WD Taxi: I was told beforehand that prices were around 10 GEL per car, but was quoted 10 GEL per person by the taxi driver. Be sure to negotiate a fair price before setting off if you choose to take a taxi instead of walking.
Basically, to visit both canyons, expect to pay a minimum of 45 GEL when travelling by public transport, though with this option it’s unlikely you’ll be able to reach both spots in one day. Easier is to join the canyon tour which will set you back at least 60 GEL in total, more if you opt to do the boat trip.
If you’re spending longer in the region, it’s also possible to buy a ‘combo’ attraction ticket for 50 GEL (€17) which includes the two canyons as well as Prometheus and Sataplia Caves.
Unfortunately, for me, the answer was no.
While I did think that both places were actually quite beautiful and unique, I also felt they were rather overhyped, overcrowded and overpriced, especially considering there is so much extraordinary beauty to be found elsewhere in Georgia without a price tag attached and where you won’t be shoved along in a single file shuffle of other tourists flapping about with selfie sticks.
If you’re not visiting Georgia’s fantastic High Caucasus mountains, are not fussed by large crowds and not on a particularly tight travel budget, you may very well be impressed by the canyons and feel your money is well spent. But I wouldn’t go out of my way just to see these two spots.
Then again, if you are any of the above, rather save your lari for the country’s many other wildly more impressive natural sights which can be enjoyed for free and without swarms of other tourists clamouring for the same view.
While I strongly believe that each place should be judged on its own merit rather than in comparison to every place you’ve ever visited, these ones, unfortunately, felt a little too much like a circus for my liking, which seriously detracted from the atmosphere and I kind of wished I had chosen somewhere else to spend my final day in this incredible country.
Still keen to visit the canyons? There are a few ways to get there.
Marshrutka | Though it is possible to visit both canyons independently by marshrutka, it’ll take some lining up of timetables, plenty of extra walking and, chances are, you won’t be able to fit it all into one day. Marshrutka depart for Martvili five times a day from Kutaisi’s main bus station and cost 4 GEL. From here it’s a 5km walk along the road to the canyon or you can take a taxi. See the timetable here or check the schedule at Kutaisi’s very helpful information office.
For Okatse, take a marshrutka either direct to Gordi (1 GEL), or to Khoni where you’ll need to change for Gordi (3 GEL). From here, it’s around 2km to the canyon ticket office. If you’re not in a rush, it’s also possible to walk to Kinchka Waterfall some 5km away.
Canyon Tour | I booked the 8-hour Canyon Tour (30 GEL, not including entrance fees and meals) from the separate tour desk inside the Kutaisi Information Centre. After shopping around, this seemed to be the best value option with stops at Martvili and Okatse Canyons, as well as Martvili Monastery. Despite my thoughts on the attractions themselves, the trip was very well organised and the driver was great. That said, it’s worth noting that despite being a tour this doesn’t include any kind of guide service, just transportation between the sights.
Regional Tours | There are a number of other tour agencies around town that offer extended tours which, as well as the canyons, include stops at Prometheus and Sapatlia Caves and a number of monasteries. See tour options here.
Taxi | As one of the most popular trips around Kutaisi, it’s also possible to organise a bespoke itinerary with a taxi driver, either directly or through your guesthouse. Prices usually range from around 50 GEL per car for one canyon stop, up to around 100 GEL for a full day tour of the region’s top attractions. If you’re travelling in a group, this is probably the best balance between being economical and efficient.